The Avondhu - By The Fireside
‘GOODBYE VENICE GOODBYE’
There’s a Latin phrase ‘oft used in literature ‘Tempis Fugit’ - ‘Time Flies’ and so it does. It was back in the year of Our Lord 2007 that I was first asked to write ‘an occasional column’ for the Cork Evening Echo. I did start to do a bit of scribbling and eventually managed (after 5 years) to ‘type’ with one finger.
St Stephen’s Day, fourteen years ago, December 26th 2007, we had a quiet day celebrating the second of the Twelve Days of Christmas. A few ‘Wran Boys’ called early in the day and after that, with farm-work finished, I sat by the fireside reading. For me, that was ‘the day the music stopped’. It was a Wednesday.
A week later, I wrote in The Echo;
About a month ago we heard the announcement in the media that all Joe Dolan concerts for the foreseeable future were cancelled. The reason given was due to some illness which Joe had contracted. That’s all we knew at the time. A fortnight before Christmas I was saying at home that we should send him a “Get Well” card – but we weren’t sure where to send it; Mullingar or even Westmeath, Ireland would probably have found him but in the end we never did sent the card. In December too a galaxy of showband personalities gathered in Cork for the unveiling of the “boulevard of stars” outside the Arcadia. I remember reading about it on the papers and thinking that Joe would have liked to be there. The day before Christmas Eve I rang Art Supple to know if he had any “news” of Joe’s health. Art had been at the event at the Arc and had spoken to Ben Dolan, Joe’s older brother and bandleader of the Drifters for decades. The story was that Joe was still ill.
Then on the evening news on St. Stephen’s Day came the terrible shock. “The death has been announced of one of Ireland’s top entertainers Joe Dolan” I’d been sitting in an armchair reading a paper when I heard it. I just burst out crying –it couldn’t be – Joe Dolan dead? the singer, the showman, the pop star – ageless and indestructible. On the television they showed a few clips of Joe on stage, on The Late Late and other shows. With streaming eyes I looked at these – still not believing what I’d just heard.
When I hear teenagers and young people today talking about a night ‘out’ they say the crowd at such and such a place was ‘massive’. On enquiring about the size of the crowd you’d be told that maybe two or three hundred had been there. Well I was so lucky to have experienced the last decades of the showband era, the 1970’s and 1980’s. The Arcadia in Cork, the Majestic in Mallow, Redbarn in Youghal, the Top Hat in Fermoy and the Majorca in Crosshaven were all the ballrooms of romance. A thousand dancers back then would have been just a handy crowd and ‘twasn’t unusual to see twice that on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
There were many, many stars on the circuit and the different bands had their own following. Whether ‘twas Dickie Rock, Brendan Bowyer, Sean Dunphy, Tommy Drennan, Red Hurley, Art Supple, Brendan O’Brien, Hugo Duncan, Larry Cunningham, the Champions or Big Tom, the crowds flocked to see and hear them. To my mind however, Joe Dolan was head and shoulders over the lot. This was not because he was ‘on the road’ for well over forty years. Not because when the ‘ballroom scene’ was over Joe never faded away, no – Joe Dolan was just so special. In recent years the phrase “There’s no show like a Joe show” has been coined. This referred to his concert tours all over the country which guaranteed ‘house full’ signs once the tickets went on sale.
I suppose back in the early 1970’s the crew-cut hairstyle of Joe Dolan, the Bachelor from Westmeath, wasn’t so much unlike the Beatles. I remember seeing a photo of Joe on the front cover of Spotlight magazine and then a few weeks later he was in the Top Hat in Fermoy. This was a newly built venue and brought the crowds from all over Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Tipperary. The relief band was on until 11 but long, long before any band started, there was a long winding queue from the car park to gain admittance. Those were the days of the mineral bar, chips and burgers and the ‘bouncers’ on the door were strict as regards who’d they’d leave in.
I can remember that first ever time we heard and saw Joe in Fermoy. Long before the relief band finished, the crowd just gathered in front of the stage in anticipation of what was to come. Hundreds and hundreds of people just stood there. Eventually then the band came on with Joe’s brother, Ben as band leader. Ben at last introduced Joe and the crowd went wild, absolutely wild. For two hours then he sang, did a bit of Irish dancing and told jokes and stories. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand. He was a simply brilliant performer and his vocal ability was unreal. He had so many hits in the charts over the years that most of the songs were known word for word by the dancers. When Joe sang hits like ‘Pretty Brown Eyes’, ‘My Own Peculiar Way’, ‘House with the Whitewashed Gable’ or ‘Make Me an Island’ all he’d do was sing the verses – the crowd would join in for the chorus. His rapport with the crowd was magical.
Joe and the Drifters played every kind of dance music, rock and roll, jives, waltzes and of course our favourites ‘the clingers’. With his trademark white suits he’d be sweating profusely after a few numbers – then the girls would start throwing him handkerchiefs! I don’t know how many ties Joe threw to the crowds, they must be treasured mementoes now. Ties and handkerchiefs weren’t the only things that flew through the air. If Joe had kept all the ladies underwear that landed on the stage he could have opened a string of lingerie shops! When ‘twould come to two o’clock in the Top Hat ‘twas time for the band to finish up. Joe would thank each and every one of his band members individually finishing up with Ben. We always roar for more, more. Then he’d sing “More and More and More” and bid farewell sidestage. We’d keep roaring and he’d always come back again and finish up with ‘Goodbye Venice Goodbye’ to a sea of waving hands.
He was a great man to play requests and to recognise dancers from different parts of the country. I remember one year in the hotel in Midleton a few of us from Bartlemy took Sister Mary Leahy (home on hols from Australia) to see Joe in action. We sent up a request and of course Joe obliged and sang the very appropriate “Sister Mary”.
In recent years Joe was a regular to concert venues like the Opera House, Silver Springs and Rochestown Park in Cork. We saw him nearly every time he came to Cork. The passing years made no difference to Joe
Dolan. He was able to embrace the modern pop songs and make them his own in his inimitable way. He could sing a ‘Blur’ or ‘Oasis’ number in the same way as ‘Make me an Island’. And now Joe Dolan is gone.
For those of us who grew up and danced in the 1970’s Joe was everything. He still reminded us of our youth. More than that however, Joe Dolan, the man from Mullingar, was a great singer and a lovely man. This country of ours is all the poorer for his passing. Joe’s band the Drifters were his ‘family’ and we his fans were his extended family. His infectious smile, his wink and little wave from the stage were personal to each and every one of us. My abiding memory of Joe will be his rendition of Danny Boy to a packed, hushed Top Hat crowd.
On Friday then, Mary and I bade our final farewell to Joe. We had the car parked in the town of Mullingar before the noon Angelus bells rang out from the Cathedral of Christ the King. The funeral home where Joe was reposing wasn’t to open to the public ‘til half past one but already the crowds were gathering. Over thirty years ago as excited teenagers we’d queued, hand in hand, for Joe Dolan dances all over Cork. Now on Friday, December the 28th 2007 along with thousands of others we were in the queue for Joe Dolan for the last time. From noon ‘til after six o’clock the throngs shuffled along Mary Street and around the corner into Gilsenan’s Funeral Home. We wept unashamedly as we met Ben and other family members and paid our final respects to our hero.
Later in the evening we sat in the crowded cathedral as the coffin was brought across the road. Joe Dolan’s penultimate journey on earth was a short one of about three hundred yards. The congregation stood and clapped in a fitting salute. To the strains of the old Irish lament ‘Táimse ina chodhlaid, ná dhúisigh mé’, Joe’s mortal remains were taken to the foot of the altar. Young curate Fr. Mark English said that Joe could well be challenging the heavenly choirs for the No. 1 spot – at that moment I thought of Dermot O’Brien, Tommy Makem and Christy Hennessy – singing with Joe, they’d be unbeatable!
The street decorations, trees and Christmas lights brightened up the dark December night as we left Mullingar. How often Joe and the Drifters had left this town over four decades to bring joy and pleasure all over the country, indeed all over the world. Truly it can be said that the death of Joe Dolan marks the end of an era. Farewell and thanks, our Westmeath Bachelor.
A month later I was back in Mullingar for Joe’s Month’s Mind Mass - I visited his grave in Walshestown Cemetery outside the town first. We’ve often gone back to that cemetery in the intervening years and a visit was planned for this year. We just stand at Joe’s graveside and say a prayer and sing a verse of a song. We shed a tear also but we smile as well because Joe brought so many smiles to so many faces for so many years.
Goodbye Venice goodbye I must leave you to die Goodbye Venice goodbye Goodbye my love Goodbye Venice goodbye I must leave you to die Goodbye Venice goodbye Goodbye my love.